Judge William Lee wants to sit on your lap and merge with your Dread.
If the enemy doesn't kill them, their hormones will.
We've been here before: a ragtag team of heroes on a huge starship at the far reaches of the galaxy. They must journey home all the while fighting a malevolent enemy for the fate of mankind. It sounds like any number of space opera anime but Vandread establishes its own identity with a unique sci-fi mystery and a welcome injection of comedy.
Facts of the Case
In the distant future, humans have colonized planets throughout the galaxy. However, in one region of the cosmos, things have gone awry. The population has split along gender lines and men have populated the planet Tarak while women reside on Mejere. It's been decades since the sexes last commingled so now men and women are at war against the "aliens" of the opposite world.
When female space pirates led by Magno Vivan commandeer a Tarak spaceship, the men retaliate with a powerful torpedo. Paksis, the sentient energy life form that powers the women's ship, opens a wormhole and transports itself to the other side of the galaxy. Emerging from the wormhole, Paksis has fused the starships of the women and men together into one. The pirates also discover they have three males onboard, including the stowaway Hibiki. When a mysterious alien force attacks, Hibiki is pressed into action with the women using a new class of Tarak mecha, the Vanguard. As the crew of the ship journey back to their home planets, they are pursued by the Harvesters. Living together on the same starship, renamed the Nirvana, the former enemies learn more about the opposite sex and it is knowledge that will change their worlds forever.
Vandread: The Ultimate Collection consists of the 13 half-hour episodes of the first season and the 13 half-hour episodes of Vandread: The Second Stage, spread over four discs. The fifth disc includes the two OVA movies Vandread: Integral (75 minutes) and Vandread: Turbulence (85 minutes) that summarize the first and second seasons respectively.
Vandread wants to be a lot of things: a comedic battle of the sexes, a showcase of intense mecha action and a thoughtful science fiction drama that considers the nature of humanity in the far flung reaches of space. While the series doesn't excel in any single element, it does put in a pretty solid effort on all fronts. The result is a better-than-average anime series that feels familiar on the surface but has enough personality to stand on its own.
The premise of the gender-divided planets provides some satirical laughs early on. A propaganda film warns Tarak men that women will deceive them so they can eat their livers. It's the characters' curiosity about the other sex that maintains the light comedic tone throughout. Dita is an alien-obsessed female who clearly has a crush on the male protagonist Hibiki but she can't quite come around to expressing her feelings. The male doctor Duelo is endlessly fascinated by his new patients as they have organs he's never even heard of. There is also time for side plots about birthday parties and coed saunas between action-packed encounters with their mutual enemy.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the show is the mecha action. Giant robots with heavy armaments are a staple of anime and during many of the action sequences, the conventions of the genre are taken for granted. The special capabilities and weaknesses of each machine are not clearly defined but some shoot missiles and others wield swords. They all seem invincible and that really undermines any sense of danger during the space battle scenes.
The Paksis energy being that powers the Nirvana also gives new abilities to Hibiki's Vanguard and the women's Dreads piloted by Dita, Meia and Jura. As the series progresses, the pilots discover that Hibiki's machine can merge with one of the others to form a Vandread with a new offensive or defensive power. When this happens, the two pilots must also share a new cockpit space. Sometimes they're side-by-side, other times they're sitting in the same seat one on the other's lap. The battle scenes typically see our heroes fighting with the odds against them until they merge into a Vandread that turns the tide. To the show's credit, the enemy forces do evolve their strategy to make it harder for our heroes, such as creating clones of the mecha, but there is a similar sense of chaos in all the action scenes.
The story of a long journey home can be traced back to Homer's The Odyssey and it's a situation that has been very reliable for sci-fi. Vandread reminded me of Starblazers in some ways, another anime story about a starship crew racing home ahead of an alien enemy. The enemy here is called the Harvesters because their drones collect humans from wherever they have established themselves in the galaxy in order to reuse their bodies. Gradually, clues emerge about the source of the Harvesters and it really gives teeth to this vision of humanity's future. It also ties in well with the existential drama of some of the key characters. Bart is the third male prisoner-turned-crew member on the Nirvana and he starts out as a coward but develops into a reliable helmsman. Hibiki is a third-class citizen of Tarak and this would mean he's relegated to his role as a mechanic for life. On a dare, he sneaks onto the starship with the intent of stealing a Vanguard but circumstances place him in a situation where he can prove himself as a warrior.
The picture quality on these DVDs is satisfying despite its presentation in a non-anamorphic, letterboxed widescreen format. The image is consistently clean and colors are pleasing, if slightly muted. Picture sharpness is acceptable though many scenes appear to be deliberately softened by the lighting effects. The original Japanese audio and the English language dub are presented in good stereo mixes. Dialogue can be pretty fast at times but the voices are clearly heard. The English script has a nice flow that works considerably better than the subtitled translation of the Japanese dialogue.
Watching the two feature-length OVAs is similar to experiencing the series through a Cliffs Notes version. Summing up the show in less than one-third of its original running time, a lot of its personality is sacrificed. The main plotline is comprehensible and most of the big action sequences are preserved. However, most of the humor and side stories are lost and many supporting characters become distractions because of their sparse screen time and undeveloped personas. The OVAs, presented in the original Japanese only, are fine as a quick revisit to the show if you are pressed for time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The first season of Vandread suffers from some primitive CG animation. It may have looked passable in its day but it looks cheap now. It appears the intention was to have the space battles involving mecha done with CG and everything else hand-drawn. Since these two styles look so dissimilar, the result is like switching back and forth between an animated TV show and a video game. The other problem is that the CG is rendered in a low resolution so objects look clunky and sad. The CG footage is also used sparingly, meaning we get few beauty shots of the ships. Consequently, it takes a long time to recognize the various mecha. The blending of cell animation and CG is much improved in Vandread: The Second Stage. The CG animation is smoother and the action scenes are more comprehensible. Plus, the space backgrounds are given a big budget boost.
At first glance, Vandread seems interchangeable with any other sci-fi anime but the strong storyline combined with doses of humor sets it apart. Even though the robot action isn't noteworthy, the likeable characters and intriguing mystery will keep your attention. The condensed OVAs are not the ideal way to watch the show but they work fine if you're in a hurry.
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